EU trawlers get fishing rights off Africa for £350m

The EU has signed its biggest-ever fisheries deal with an African nation, sparking a debate on whether Third World oceans should be exploited now that many European fish stocks have collapsed.

In what is seen as a test case for agreements on sustainable fishing, the accord will allow about 200 European vessels to fish for shrimps, hake, tuna and other species in waters off the Mauritanian coast.

The deal is worth €516m (£350m) to the Mauritanian government over six years and the European Commission says the "great part" of the cash will be devoted to supporting "responsible and sustainable fisheries" off Africa.

Joe Borg, the European fisheries commissioner, stressed the mutual benefit in terms of "jobs, strengthened monitoring and control, conservation of resources in compliance with scientific assessment and environmental protection".

But conservationists fear that the accord is based on incomplete knowledge of the state of fish stocks and could precipitate the devastation of some species.

The agreement replaces an €86m-a-year accord with Mauritania, just 5 per cent of which funds sustainable fisheries projects.

The new deal scales back fishing of some depleted stocks including cephalopods, which include octopuses and squid, and demersal species, which dwell on or near the sea floor. Fishing for cephalopods - for which the EU has the right to do with 55 vessels - will be reduced by 30 per cent while the catch for demersal species will be slashed by about 60 per cent.

Of the €86m the EU will pay Mauritania annually for six years, €10m will go towards upgrading ports, modernising fishing fleets, strengthening scientific monitoring of stocks and improving standards of safety at sea.

In addition, licence fees from European fishermen may add another €22m a year for Mauritania, which has population of more than three million. That represents almost one-third of its national income.

Vessels from more than a dozen nations, including Britain, Spain, Portugal and Germany, are expected to fish in Mauritanian waters.

But campaigners are worried about elements of the deal and the other 13, bilateral fisheries agreements in force.

These often lucrative deals present a dilemma for west African governments. They have to balance their desperate need for foreign exchange earnings with the need to safeguard stocks which help feed their people and provide rare economic opportunities for many communities.

Saskia Richartz, Greenpeace's EU marine policy adviser, said the "key problems" still existed. "Going into new regions is a result of overcapacity of our fleets and unsustainable fishing of our own fish stocks. Consequently, we have to go further afield to fish," she said.

Greenpeace is worried that African stocks are already under growing pressure from indigenous fishermen and illegal fishing by European, Chinese, Russian and Korean vessels. It points to research showing Somalia may be losing $300m (£160m) in annual revenue, and Guinea $100m, from undeclared fishing. These catches are not factored in to the scientific calculations and could mean stocks are more at risk than first thought.

There are also doubts about the capacity of west African countries to monitor the situation. And campaigners say it is vital that European catches are cut as the Mauritanian fleet develops its capacity.

The new deal comes into force next month, pending formal agreement by EU member states.

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